Updating Courses, Expanding Horizons

I just read your excellent article, “The NewsMeets With County Schools,” in the February 25 issue, and want to add some comments.

Getting more training classes started is an excellent step, but instructors need additional support in updating their curriculum and in overcoming the “College is the only way to success” attitude of counselors.

This is not a criticism of existing programs or the instructors, who are some of the best in the industry. It is a comment on the rapidly changing hvac industry. In general, there are two different classes for students preparing to enter the hvac industry: refrigeration and service; and sheet metal and air conditioning.

As far as I know, the refrigeration and service-type of classes have a current curriculum because the industry donates units for students to work on that are fairly new.

However, the sheet metal and air conditioning-type of classes have an outdated curriculum — through no fault of their own. Twenty years ago, the sheet metal trade was basically a hand craft that marked patterns on metal and formed the raw sheets (pretty much by hand) into ductwork. Today, it’s the mechanized, computerized, technical indoor environment industry. The old ratio was about 10 workers in the shop for one in the field. Now that ratio is one in the shop and 10 in the field. Work in the field is mostly hanging duct efficiently through coordination, planning, and teamwork.

The sheet metal instructor has a shop full of tools that are seldom used in today’s shops (except for architectural sheet metal work). Take a look at a school shop — hand brakes, foot-powered squaring shears, soldering benches, and hand snips. A lucky shop may have a Pittsburgh machine. And this isn’t the fault of the instructor. No school can afford such things as a $100,000 computerized layout machine, and even if they could, the amount of education to be derived from one would not justify the cost.

Using old equipment is not all bad. Every entry-level worker should be familiar with hand brakes, shears, soldering, and forming duct fittings by hand. But the classes need help in preparing students for the real world of hvac. They should get experience in planning a duct run and hanging duct, using TDCs [transverse duct connectors]. And they should get a taste of all the different careers available in the hvac industry such as TAB [testing, adjusting, and balancing], residential sheet metal, project coordination, and system commissioning.

Most instructors know all this, but when they are operating on an annual budget of a few thousand dollars for equipment and materials, they can do little about it.

Now, let’s turn to the counselor problem. I know generalizations are dangerous, but most school counselors are from an academic background and have a built-in attitude that working with your hands is somehow degrading. They think that the only path for an intelligent student is a college career. It is hard for them to see that many of us are happier working on something concrete — something we can get our hands on and see a concrete result. They think only the mentally deficient should take vocational classes. I had a high school counselor refer to a regional vocational center as “the place where the dummies go.” They think that working with one’s hands is not only menial but also ensures poor pay. When I tell them that a union sheet metal worker in our locality earns $51.50/hour (with all the fringe benefits), they are shocked.

We’ve got to educate counselors that success is working at a job you have a passion for, and the construction trades pay very high wages.

The hvac industry offers many, many career paths. If you go to www.lamabooks.com and click on “Leo’s Success Plan,” you will see over 25 different careers we have identified that a young person entering the hvac industry can choose from.

But all is not negative. Because of actions such as those you on The News are taking, there is a trend beginning to give occupational education its proper recognition. Education runs in cycles. We are coming to the end of the “college is for everyone” cycle and returning to the recognition that 60% of our youth do not go to college, and we must provide properly for them.

Leo A. Meyer, LAMA Books, Leo A. Meyer Associates, Hayward, CA

Publication date: 03/25/2002